Politics, the diplomatic service and the law – three establishment professions – have all been in the news regarding their promotion of women.
First came the controversy over the composition of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet , which drew criticism because the top jobs shadowing ‘great offices of State’ were awarded to men: Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. Although the Shadow Cabinet is majority female, many expressed dismay that women are in relatively junior posts.
This version of gender balance by numbers, but not status, is a persistent issue. There have been similar criticisms made regarding women on boards, where numerical gender equality has frequently been achieved by offering women non-executive roles rather than the more powerful executive positions.
By contrast, in the middle pages of the Economist (page 35 or behind the paywall), I read that the French diplomatic corps has attained a record share of female ambassadors – one third – and has paid attention to prestige as well as numbers. The current French ambassador to London is a woman, as are strategically important ambassadors in Ukraine and Pakistan. Meanwhile, here in the UK , 19% of ambassadors are women and we have never sent a female ambassador to Washington D.C. or Paris – although we do now have a woman ambassador in Beijing. How have the French transformed the position of women in diplomacy? In 2012 they set a target of 40% senior public offices to be occupied by women by 2018. Here in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been behind other government departments in terms of senior female appointments, reflecting a longstanding male dominance. The marriage bar was only lifted for female diplomats in 1973. Like senior politicians and lawyers, senior female diplomats are less likely to be married and/or have children than their male counterparts. In recent initiatives, the Foreign Office has addressed issues of work-life balance creatively by offering job-share postings to married diplomats, or by offering neighbouring overseas positions. These are welcome developments, but may not address wider diversity issues for those with spouses in different professions.
Meanwhile over in the law, Lord Sumption, a member of the Supreme Court, has expressed his views regarding gender equality in the judiciary. He is concerned that ‘rushing’ to achieve women’s equality in the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ . A quarter of judges are currently female, and the proportion of women declines the further up the judicial hierarchy you go. Lord Sumption has suggested that the lack of women judges can be explained by women being perhaps less willing to put in the long hours : ‘as a lifestyle choice it’s very hard to quarrel with it’ he says. Analysis of women’s positon in the legal profession here and here suggests that there are issues of professional culture which can affect women, beyond any consideration of more flexible working patterns. Informal networking and mentoring are important for career progression, and are often less accessible and sustainable for women barristers than for men, in a profession full of senior men from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds.
Lord Sumption is reported as suggesting that we should be ‘patient’, and that it could take up to 50 years for there to be equal numbers of male and female judges; in politics we have reached the point where 29% of MPs are women, but it will take a further 50 years to reach parity at current rates of change. In this scenario, I can only quote Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary where ‘patience’ is defined as ‘a mild form of despair disguised as a virtue’.